Big Story 10

Car wash slavery main concern for callers to UK anti-trafficking helpline

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Modern-day slavery at Britain’s car washes is the main concern for members of the public who call the country’s anti-slavery helpline - with more than 2,000 suspected victims identified in nearly two years - an anti-trafficking charity said on Friday.

Car washes were the most common cause of concerns about modern slavery among callers - ahead of building sites, nail bars and farms - accounting for about a quarter of all potential slavery victims referred to the helpline, according to Unseen.

Thousands of workers in Britain’s car washes are believed to be slaves - mostly men lured from Eastern Europe then trapped in debt bondage, forced to work in unsafe conditions, stripped of their documents and subjected to threats, abuse and violence.

From police and charity campaigns to a new mobile phone app enabling drivers to share their suspicions and a parliamentary probe set up in April to investigate slavery in Britain’s hand car washes, efforts to boost public awareness are on the rise.

“This report underlines the crucial importance of everyone being able to both recognize the signs of slavery and exploitation and being willing to report,” said Andrew Wallis, head of Unseen, which has run the helpline since October 2016.

“If you use a hand car wash and the people washing your car aren’t wearing protective gear, if they’re withdrawn, unwilling to handle the money, and if the price seems too good to be true - that should ring alarm bells,” Wallis said in a statement.

Calls to the helpline about possible slavery at car washes led to 400 referrals being made to police and local authorities, while about a sixth of the 2,170 suspected victims were Romanian - the most common nationality identified - according to Unseen.

While forced labor is rife across Britain’s building sites, nail bars and farms, car wash slavery is rising with unregulated businesses sprouting up nationwide and most victims too scared to speak out, the country’s anti-slavery agency and chief say.

“Car washes are known to be one of the main industries where labor exploitation takes place,” Adam Thompson of the National Crime Agency’s slavery unit told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“It is important that the public know the signs of modern slavery when making choices about where they take their cars.”

Britain is regarded as an international leader in the fight against modern slavery, having passed a landmark law in 2015 just months before the United Nations adopted a global development goal of ending forced labor and slavery by 2030.